Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Unbearable Bassington - Saki

One of the highlights of my trip to Shetland was meeting Micheal Walmer, who has recently moved up there. We got a socially distanced walk between weathers and to talk about books - including ‘The Unbearable Bassington’, and wondered what kind of writer Saki would have become if he hadn't been killed in the first world war. I think that the answer is partly here.

I'm more familiar with Saki's short stories, frequently anthologized in the sort of collections I like so there's a decent quantity of them I've read many times, as well as often dipping into a comprehensive penguin edition. They're funny and memorable with all the authors trade mark wit, cruelty, and elegance, but this is the only longer work I've read. The body of the book feels typical enough but there's an emotional punch at the end which I don't find in the short stories. 

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ in question is (presumably) a youth called Comus who is more force of nature than boy, a fated lord of misrule who sails through his school days care of good looks, undeniable charm, and sufficient sporting prowess. Post school and the world isn’t quite so kind to Comus; there are no shortage of charming young men on the town and neither he or his long suffering mother have any money, Comus needs to contract a decent marriage as the chances of him making any sort of hand at a career are slim. Unfortunately he blows it in the marriage stakes through sheer perversity which leaves him with but one option – he’s exported to West Africa in the traditional manner of black sheep in the age of empire.

The other Bassington is Francesca a woman who is commonly held to have no soul – instead she has a drawing room – an ordered peaceful place where all her household gods are laid out. The affection between Francesca and her son is real, neither is much given to loving others but both care deeply for each other despite the barrier that’s grown up between them. This coldness is due almost entirely to the nature that Comus can’t help but have: “Fate played him with loaded dice; he would lose always.”

‘The Unbearable Bassington” was first published in 1912 and reads as both an attack on and an elegy for the society it portrays. Saki must I think have known war was coming (He wrote ‘When William Came’ – an imagining of London occupied by the Germans a year later) with hindsight it certainly reads as if he realises that this particular society is all but done with. There are constant pokes both at the vapid nature of society gossip and the patronising futility of good works (my favourite being this: “No one has ever said it,’ observed Lady Caroline ‘but how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them.”). Perhaps there is a sense of frustration too at a society that produces boys like Comus who have no conceivable use in the world (except they are destined to become cannon fodder very soon) and no means to live on.

If the plot is a little depressing the one liner’s that litter every page are perfectly polished gems sparkling like nobody’s business making the book a joy to read. Maybe a bigger question than what Saki would have become, is what he would have become if he'd have lived longer and not had to have experienced the war. It's harder for me to imagine how he would have reacted to the disintegration of the Edwardian world he skewered so perfectly - we lost a great writer when he died, but what would he have lost if he'd lived? 

I first read this book in a disintegrating orange Penguin edition, it's a real pleasure to have the new copy printed by Walmer (it's a particularly pleasing pocket size, the print isn't too small, and the introduction by Maurice Baring is useful). It's something which deserves to be far better known. This is true of all the books Walmer publishes - it's worth having a look at his Facebook page here for links to more reviews. 


  1. It was really lovely to meet you and walk, Hayley. I couldn't agree more that this book is extraordinary, and deserves so much more of a reputation than it has. Thanks for reviewing it.

  2. That ENDING. Still with me, all these years later. And how lovely to meet Michael!

    1. That ending hasn't lost it's power, and it really was lovely to meet Michael who is now also involved in an amazing project to get Shetland's literary heritage back into print.